It’s a Joke!

Someone I know on Facebook wrote something in their status a couple of weeks ago that I took great exception to. It was a little story. I’m going to include a redacted version here because it was too vile for me to feel comfortable reproducing completely.

A study has revealed that the kind of face a woman finds attractive on a man can differ depending on where she is in her menstrual cycle.

For example: if she is ovulating, she is attracted to men with rugged and masculine features. However, if she is menstruating or menopausal, she tends to be more attracted to a man with [redacted because of extreme violence some of it of a sexual nature]

No further studies are expected on this subject.

When I read this the first time my response was WTF?

One commenter, a man, responded first:

This is very disturbing.

Then I made several comments. [of course] A summary, for they were long ones:

Why do you want to perpetuate this ridiculous stereotype? Do you hate men? Do you hate women?

On Twitter a couple of weeks ago there was a meme going around which was #reasonstobeatyourgirlfriend (Reasons to beat your girlfriend) A lot of guys put some really nasty shit there. Much of it related to women and their hormones. A lot more people objected to not only the hashtag itself but the vile content. Some guys said "It’s just a joke"…

Violence is not a fucking joke. Portraying women as hysterical out of control maniacs is not a joke. Men and women have enough problems trying to understand each other without people reinforcing the problems and exaggerating things… this is just vile. If you have some issues deal with them…don’t make it worse for women and men who are trying to overcome that with this kind of joke.  If this is what passes for humor among your Mafia Wars crowd or other friends then maybe you ought to examine the company you are keeping.

The original poster had written BTW, in response to the first comments that objected to the content:

IT’S A JOKE!!!

Screamed at the reader in big bold ALL CAPS!!! Which got the response:

Would it be a joke if a woman was being described as being violated in that fashion? It’s a joke doesn’t cut it an an excuse.

That resulted in an unpleasant personal message to the effect that I should have kept my comments to myself and if I couldn’t then at least sent them privately even though the item was posted publicly. Then I was unfriended. And blocked. And this person, who happens to be a close relative, has not communicated with me since.

Interestingly though, the posting was removed and an apology to everyone still in the loop was posted instead. OK.

This kind of thing is a fairly common occurrence. Places like Facebook have rape joke groups/pages and Twitter hash tags often have this kind of material. On the Facebook issue, Violet Blue has written a post Facebook Finally Removes Its Pro-Rape Pages.

Sexual violence can be directed at women or men, although a far larger amount is directed at women. It’s just distasteful at it’s mildest and offensive and incitement to criminal activity in the more extreme cases.

A lot of it has to do with gender stereotyping. Here’s another example from the beloved [I’m going to color all snark a puky green] online publication Elephant Journal Are Women Mentally Ill? [link is to the Google cache version because of the paywall-you can find all their stuff in that cache BTW without having to let your browser touch their actual website] The article is an attempt at humor, I am supposing, since I can’t find any other reason why anyone would want to write something like that. I’m not going to get into specific critiques of EJ articles much any more as that could potentially become a full time job and the pushback tends to be a irrational mess of irrelevant ad hominems and other non sequiturs. Mindful insults I suppose.

There was another piece there about “Yoga for Black People”, ostensibly a joke or attempt at humor of some sort as well. That particular piece came along with public humiliation for those that questioned, no matter how politely, the wisdom of such postings.  Nathan at Dangerous Harvests summed the situation up nicely in the post Elephant Journal’s Got Issues and the comments are equally interesting. But I don’t want to dwell on these specific situations when this trend is becoming ever more common.

The trend I mean is one of diminishment of others [and sometimes one’s self] for the sake of humor followed by a dismissal of their hurt.

The It’s a Joke Rationalization

Humor has a lot of uses in society. Humor is useful for illuminating many of the uncomfortable aspects of our society without seeming to be critical or dour and to avoid directly offending an audience. Professionals like George Carlin and Chris Rock do this very well. But since it is mainly described as entertainment, contrasted with “serious” work, there is also the tendency to attempt to justify pretty much anything as humor in order to give it a pass rather than serious examination.

From another perspective humor is an effective means to normalize and continue social stratification, exclusionary behavior and oppression. It very much depends upon who is making the joke and who is the target of the joke. Power relations play into that.

This also has a long history wherein those labeled “Other” become the butt of jokes involving stereotypes. The powerful, in whatever capacity are often deemed more acceptable targets since they often have means to silence/ignore their critics in some form or another. The humor at their expense does not endanger their positions or security or well-being. The marginalized however have a different and somewhat diminished degree of protection in this regard. They do not often either have the power to silence nor do they often even have the power to respond with a similar level of social impact. Yet with the label of “just a joke” we are conditioned to laugh and dismiss commentary of this nature. It is generally meant in the latter case to disguise hostility and enforce existing power relations. Those who do not go along become similarly marginalized. This is the same sort of social mechanism as the average bully uses to bolster their position and security. A thin disguise indeed.

Shame and guilt are very strong motivators for social behavior. Humor when directed at the more powerful is about shame and guilt for behaviors that diminish others who are less powerful. It is a form of social address that has been invoked for centuries. That’s why the political comic genius of a George Carlin still contains strong messages. The court jester was tolerated and the member’s of the king’s court laughed at his mockery of royal power for exactly the same reasons. It is a social leveling mechanism in these kinds of instances.

Now I have personally used this sort of shaming humor, generally in the form of snark, in a response to organizations/publications/individuals in positions of power. Deliberately. And I will no doubt use it again in a situation where I am speaking from a position of a)defense b)against a relatively powerful corporate entity c)marginalization d) injustice or wherever there is a justifiable power differential in play that diminishes the less powerful.

In other instances, where the target is one of lesser social power there is no social leveling going on but a reinforcement of hierarchy and status quo power positioning. I won’t personally go there (no matter how tempting) and will, if I have the energy, challenge that which does. In that instance, humor and accusations of lack of appreciation for a particular form of humor are used as a way to shame, silence or misdirect people so that they don’t question or challenge what the joke actually means or what effect it has in a larger context.

In that case those who seek to induce a sense of shame or guilt in others by using such humor and attacking those who don’t go along, are attempting to control the behavior. When one questions or objects to an offensive joke some people are quick to remark that you are being overly sensitive, weak, negative, ruining the community, too serious or lacking a sense of fun or a sense of humor in general. 

Most people don’t want to be written off as the overly serious, stuck up person who can’t take a joke. Why are you getting so upset? It’s just a joke! This is the threat of social ostracism and marginalization. It means “If you don’t go along you’re out of the club.” According to the psychologist Maslow (hierarchy of needs) a sense of belonging is a significant human need in order to have a fulfilled life. To have this sense threatened is a powerful psychological motivator.

In another psychological way there is something satisfying about transgressing boundaries. It reinforces a sense of autonomy. The edge, which is where boundaries are transgressed, has an excitement to it that is hard to resist. There is something that feels a little like courage or bravery to go against the grain. Whether it actually is courage or something else depends a great deal on the variables of the situation.

The biggest variable relates to the issue of power relations. It does not take courage to  mock others who are at the same or lesser social level than one’s self. That’s pretty easy since the weight of an institution, a crowd or other forms of heavy social capital are not even needed and may even be on one’s side in those instances. In that case it is something else, most likely fake bravado disguising insecurity or actual lack of courage to look at the more powerful rather than the less powerful. Any oaf can squash ants but not many want to look within for the resources to challenge that which is larger. Lots of reasons why that happens. Then again there are a few who don’t see a difference as long they are not on the receiving end. Perpetual perpetrators who cry victim if they are called on it. Or in it for the lulz, as popular parlance would have it. Either way the type of empathetic insensitivity, often accompanied by grossly exaggerated and distorted personal sensitivity that comes with that kind of terrain is too mind boggling to get into. [AKA Troll motivation 101]

Moving on.

Here’s an interesting piece that appeared recently on Scientific American blogs, The Joke Isn’t Funny—It’s Harmful. The author is voicing criticism of another blog piece that appeared on the site Nature, in which a lot of stereotypical gender behavior is used in an attempt at humor. That happens every day but it doesn’t generally happen on internationally known science based websites. So there was controversy.

The author does a good job of outlining the concept of stereotype threat and how it affects individuals and groups in terms of social advantage and disadvantage. You can read that for yourself at the link but one point that is brought up in the comments is the idea that these sorts of “jokes” are somehow validated by science, that is women are by way of evolution less rational, particularly regarding certain social behaviors.

A stereotype is a social instrument to validate those in positions of power and privilege. People become conditioned by social means which appears to validate stereotypes but this does not provide factual or provable means of demonstrable proof. Some women may themselves say they become “insane” due to hormonal changes. This does not mean it’s a scientific fact, only that upon encountering the stereotype long enough it becomes inculcated as a behavioral pseudo-explanation. Sort of like religion and its “The devil made me do it.” Pure bullshit based on pop cultural reinforcements.

It’s the same kind of “argument” (though it’s not even worthy of that term) as “men are “natural” providers/athletes/fathers/leaders/lovers/mathematicians etc or white people are more “naturally” rational/accountable/responsible/etc.

These are all culturally defined/conditioned/sanctioned/emphasized/learned behaviors. There is no universal human gene for “leadership” just as there is none for “shopping ability” despite what some “evolutionary psychologists” might postulate-and that is all they can do is postulate because they haven’t proven a damn thing with their status quo reinforcing theories. (tempting to go into the tangent of so-called “alpha” behavior, as in “alpha-male” or “alpha-bitch”[notice the dehumanization when the colloquial “alpha” term is applied to the female?] as that’s equally as culture-bound, learned and fully bogus, but I’ll save that for later)

There’s the difference between a truism/stereotype and a demonstrable factual explanation. This gets into all kinds of things like logical fallacies and rationalizations used as fact. The Colbert truthiness factor abounds.

Math, Stereotypes and the Gender Wars Mess

Why Pretty Girls Can’t Do Math is an article that appeared on the Psychology Today website about a study that seems to indicate that when women think about romance they can’t think subsequently think about math.

The subjects were shown some imagery and conversation that had either to do with romance or intelligence and were further asked to keep journals or do tasks. Only the women who received the stimulus related to romance temporarily lost some interest in math and related subjects.

I saw this study noted in a couple of places and finally at one of those places left a comment about it , which I want to amplify a bit.

I’m sure there are some things that some men could be exposed to that would cause them to lose their interest in math as well. Ask a male football or hockey fan to divide the length of the field or rink by the width and express it as a decimal fraction while the Superbowl or Stanley Cup finals are on. Or to discuss the angle of incidence as it pertains to the angle of reflection on the mirrored ceiling of their favorite porno movie. (bonus points if you can also account for the refractive properties of an 8 mm. thickness of the mirror glass)  Here is some study help if you need it. No its not a porn site but a physics site.

Try this during or after pretty much any other enculturated dopamine inducing activity. We are taught from a young age not only “gender-appropriate” activities which include heavy emotional content (dolls, war toys), but also we receive positive reinforcement, which is a dopamine (among other neurochemicals) boost, for engaging in those activities.

Girls play princess and hear “You are so pretty.”  or “When is your prince coming?” Boys often receive praise, particularly if they go on to become university students, for good grades particularly in traditionally male dominated fields like math or the sciences.

There is no reason then for men to respond to the romantic stimuli in the same way as women. they have not been conditioned to that as children. The women who received the stimuli related to intellectual topics fared the same as men.

So basically the study proves that women are conditioned to respond to attention to their attractiveness and partnering ability. Pretty old news.

That some would try to make this study into a verification of biological determinism, meaning “Pretty girls can’t do math” as the title suggests is really bogus.

The same old problems exist with this study as with most psychological studies;limited sample size, lack of diversity in sample size, and so on. These romantic images would not generally translate cross-culturally. So any conclusions have to be limited to a subset of a subset. The study is highly gender and culture and class bound. There is a correlation but that is not definitively or necessarily even demonstrably causative.

In general if someone is distracted they are not going to focus on another activity that is of lower priority and especially if they have not been conditioned to it. So the researchers should have first done some investigation into what the participants considered their personal priorities or preferences and set up the experiment using that.

Beyond this the same author who wrote this article mentioning this study wrote another one only a couple of months back about the Japanese women’s soccer team beating the American women’s soccer team at the World Cup. Now I didn’t care for the first article I cite here but it is not based on the author’s own field of specialization.

In How Japan Captured the World Cup Title the author does rely on her own area of expertise to put forward a theory as to the reason why the Japanese women, despite just having been through a devastating earthquake and nuclear reactor melt down went on to win.

It had to do with simultaneous multiple identities. The women were less stressed because they were not only focused on winning a match. It would not be the end of the world if they didn’t win. The other team were there for one purpose only hence their expectations were heightened and the pressure for that particular match was extreme.

She writes:

The mere act of realizing you aren’t just defined by one dimension – your SAT score or your ability to make a penalty shot – can be enough to help curtail those worries and negative thoughts that sometimes interfere with your ability to perform at your best. In essence, thinking about yourself from multiple perspectives can help relieve some pressure that you feel to excel in one area of your life.

Suppose we apply that to areas of traditional gender roles and the gender conditioning children go through.

I have a friend with a young son. Her husband has insisted on training the boy in hockey since he was old enough to walk. He was determined that the kid would be the next Wayne Gretzky. The kid doesn’t really like hockey. The mother enrolled the boy at age 4 into Hip Hop dance class. He loves it and he’s really good at it. He, now at age 6, wants to learn music and singing so he can be a performer. They are fortunate enough that they can afford all of this although I suspect that in the next year or two hockey is going to fade away.

The child could have been kept within a narrow conditioned path and maybe he would have become some kind of athlete. Or maybe he would have become rebellious. No one can say for sure but with a broader range of options the likelihood of him finding something that really gives him a good quality of life, a great deal of pleasure and not just a big paycheck, later in life is substantially increased.

The point is social conditioning has an effect that we can only overcome if we are conscious of it. If we have to spend a good deal of our time thinking about or enacting a particular gender performance (masculine/feminine) and that becomes our priority especially if we feel some element of insecurity in that area, then it will become magnified in terms of priorities. That puts other elements…oh like rational thought, coherent analysis and linguistic ability somewhere out of the ballpark. This is pretty evident if you follow the so-called “Gender Wars” debates. The extremists at both ends can’t manage to see much beyond the genitals of the various situations and take facts into account.

Nathan had a good post today on his 21st Century Relationships blog called “Men Want to Feel Manly” which was a quote from a comment someone had left. The quote he took issue with was:

I think what it boils down to is men wanting to feel manly but still appreciated. I would always offer, but any man who allows you to pay (especially on a first or second date) is probably not that invested. When guys like you, they want to impress you. They do that by proving they can provide for you. It’s an instinctual thing.

He made some very good points about the kinds of assumptions that are wrapped up in this comment. It denies people’s true natures and it turns dating into a capitalist activity. Read the whole thing.

I agreed but went a bit further in the comments:

You didn’t rant so I will.

That biological determinism trope has got to end. We are not our biology, men or women. It all fits so very neatly into the complimentarian scheme of things which basically states "For every manly man there is a womanly woman."

Cut and dried little boxes.

Even though my relationships have primarily been with men, including a long marriage, I’ve begun over the years to adopt the label of gender-queer in terms of the way I think, behave and live. I can’t "think like a woman" whatever that is supposed to mean, nor can I "think like a man" or behave stereotypically as either comfortably. That has always been the case. I can only think and behave as myself, which is not consulting my physiology every time a thought comes in my head to see if it is appropriate for my particular physical configuration. What a load of bollocks.

It annoys me to no end that social structures [and roles] are built based on genitals and what they are "supposed" to symbolize.

I have as many reservations about that comment you quoted as you do. It infantilizes women by suggesting we cannot care for ourselves adequately, turns sex into a commodity to be bargained for by the highest bidder and turns men into johns who are only shopping for a glorified prostitute and whose only worth is measured by their wallet.

Some day maybe more people will see through all this than don’t. I look forward to that tipping point.

I’ve been reading a lot of nonsense over the past week or so about appropriate roles or activities for women and men and the alleged “fact” of male dominance.

I don’t know any men who have such things as their priority nor do I know any women who strive to be “taken care of” as if they were children. I guess I’m just lucky because there seems to be a significant number of people who think and behave as if that were some evolutionary fact.

No doubt evolutionary psychology, which is something I’d call a new form of eugenics, with equally shaky theoretical foundations, has something to do with this as well as the advertising world which continually bombards us with “gender appropriate” propaganda because it’s easier to make a profit if they can convince everyone to buy into the same grand sociological narrative.

And that’s all it is–this sorry story of gender, dominance and the pitiful rationalizations that psychology, religion, society and culture put forward to excuse all manner of atrocity, degradation, abuse, unfairness and injustice.

Unfortunately, until most people realize that these kinds of battles have the stink of brain wash all over them they will keep recurring.

Perfect Women in Chilly Climates

There was an article today titled Is It Cold in Here? By Jennifer Ouellette on the Scientific American website. She wrote about working at CERN and the chilly social climate she encountered there as a woman in a man’s world. She then discusses a situation that has exploded all over the atheist/skeptic blogosphere regarding a man’s proposition to a woman at 4 AM.

I began to write a post about this situation a few weeks ago when all the hoopla started but got caught up in other things.

But with today’s article, the mention of it on P.Z.Myers blog Pharyngula and the same dim-witted responses pouring in as last time, I’m going to say my piece on this topic after all.

The Original Post I Started

There’s been a big uproar among the atheists regarding a fairly minor incident at one of their conferences.  A bunch of the posts appear at the bottom of this one if you wish to dig deeper into specifics.

A woman speaker who had been giving talks about feminism, female objectification and getting more women to join the movement was approached and mildly propositioned. Sounds rather innocuous, and it would be if that was all that occurred.

The problem was the circumstances.

She had been talking on these subjects for several days. She keeps a blog on that and related subjects. She is well known for her opinion on these matters.

As the conference was going on a group had gathered in the venue’s bar. It was getting late and she announced that she was tired and was going to get some sleep.

She proceeded to the hotel elevator and got in. She was followed in there by a man she didn’t know but who had apparently been in the bar with her group when she was in there. Either he hadn’t introduced himself at that time, or previously, or had not participated in the conversation at all so that any introduction went unnoticed.

While in the elevator he proceeded to ask her to come to his room for coffee because he found her viewpoint interesting and wanted to continue the conversation.

What’s wrong with that scenario?

If you don’t know here’s a list.

  1. It’s 4AM and you suggest coffee?
  2. She said she was tired and was going to bed indicating that the conversation portion of the night was over. That he wanted to continue it indicates either some kind of hearing problem or completely ignoring her explicitly stated wishes.
  3. She was in a foreign country, in a strange hotel, in an elevator alone. She was in unfamiliar surroundings. She had no backup and everyone she had been with assumed she would go to her room so no one was going to come looking for her until the next day at the earliest.
  4. She had just spent several days outlining how offensive it was to be objectified. Is coffee in a hotel room in the middle of the night a euphemism?
  5. She did not know this man who followed her. Even if he had been an acquaintance it would have been fairly insensitive and pushy. Can you say date rape?
  6. He did not suggest some alternative time or place such as breakfast or during the next day’s break or even something vague like tomorrow. It had to be now and it had to be there. On his terms. That’s rather presumptuous and yes, privileged.
  7. They had been in a bar and depending upon the number of drinks imbibed she might not have been able to fully consent to anything, coffee or otherwise. And since he was also in the bar he was aware of this. This is really taking advantage of a situation.

Any one of these might be sluffed off but combined they place the woman in a situation of extreme vulnerability. Some men don’t understand what it is like to feel that. Some men think it is OK to behave this way because they themselves are not predators and rapists. Good. I’m glad they’re not. Unfortunately other men are. Unless those who are wear a sign around their necks stating that fact it’s not possible to tell the difference.

Here’s a list of some of the high points found in the comments on those posts. I’ll just grab a bunch out of the various comments to illustrate a few points.

  1. …he made a totally appropriate request. He wanted to get to know her. [Ignoring what she stated she wanted.]
  2. …she was out at 4AM. What does she expect? [Blame the victim. Enforce good girl/slut stereotypes. ]
  3. …she could have just ignored him. [In a confined space? It’s hard enough to ignore in a public space. Even Dawkins would have a hard time ignoring someone doing something obnoxious in an elevator.]
  4. …it was just awkward or maybe rude but certainly not sexist. [His personal issues should be used to excuse behavior. Let’s minimalize.]
  5. …he was just shy so had to wait until he could get her alone. [His problem becomes her problem to which she must accommodate.]
  6. …she over reacted by getting upset or even bothered.[Her feelings/reaction is irrelevant. Dismissive]
  7. …because she writes about women’s issues she hates men. [basic non sequitur]
  8. …because she’s a feminist nothing a man could do would please her.[Overgeneralization, ad hominem, non sequitur…]
  9. …she only complained to get attention. [The issue requires attention but is dismissed. Ad hominem speculation on her motivation/character traits]
  10. …she abuses the feminist label to get out of arguments [Misdirection. Ad hominem. Everything she says can then be dismissed because it’s said under the banner of “feminism” which she is allegedly misusing. ]
  11. …if she didn’t write these kinds of things we wouldn’t have to get angry. [Blame shifting. See Skepchick’s post called Why I Deserved to be Called an Offensive Bitch for more on this type of situation.]

Not hard to note all the fallacies, logical and otherwise, distorted thinking and cognitive dissonance that are woven into those.  [I’ve put in brackets some of those to make it quite easy to note. There’s more that could be listed.] They’re all forms of derailing.

Here’s a whole bunch of posts on the elevator incident starting with her original statement, which was brief and only requested that men not do that kind of thing.

Rebecca Watson has a new video contains the video in question. Her point about the incident takes place at 4:31 in the video and lasts for approximately 72 seconds. She is not rude, belittling or abusive, just straightforward. “Don’t do that.” and then she gives some very sound reasons why not.

The comments came fast and furious, many from men who seemed to feel abused because someone asked them to mind their behavior a little bit.

Always name names! from Pharyngula blog P.Z.Myers takes Rebecca’s point to heart.

Richard Dawkins jumps into the comments there and makes a big fool out of himself, several times over. Rebecca responds with another post.

The Privilege Delusion which is a take off on Dawkins book title The God Delusion. The original poster responds to Dawkins dismissals.

Many more posts followed including

Dear Richard Dawkins… which includes a number of letters to the clueless skeptic regarding his foggy comments

And Gawker picked up the story online as well

Richard Dawkins Torn Limb From Limb—By Atheists

As did The New Statesman Sharing a lift with Richard Dawkins and The Atlantic Wire Richard Dawkins Gets into a Comments War with Feminists.

Each of these has dozens of links to other posts with opinions. The vast majority support not only Rebecca’s viewpoint but her right to hold a viewpoint of her own. Many of the commenters support neither and make outlandish accusations about the original post contents and motivations of Rebecca. Many of the latter complainants are also anonymous.

Here’s an interesting aside.

Female-Name Chat Users Get 25 Times More Malicious Messages

Back to the Present Post

…that’s where I ended. But there seems to be more to come. The chilly climate article is an example. It needs to continue to be brought up until there’s no more need for it to continue to be brought up. That’s pretty simple.

When I read those types of abusive comments the female posters received I often wonder what is expected of women by those who cannot hear their voices or acknowledge their arguments. I note the men who agreed with the women were rarely or ever attacked in the same way, or at all – that’s telling. The stamina that is required to address these kinds of comments leaves one unbelievably tired. And it’s often wasted energy.

Trying to answer these types of complaints often only works the complainant up into a further froth. Interestingly when left without response the froth seems to increase anyways, as do the comments, until the real agenda shows up.

It strikes me that the only response that would satisfy these misogynist trolls is silence. The perfect woman would be a silent one. It seems that the entire purpose of that kind of commentary is to stifle an opinion that is disagreeable and uncomfortable. Often by any means possible. The ad hominem is especially popular for that purpose. That is bringing up completely unrelated personal, and often fictitious, statements in an abusive manner in order to try to make someone retract their opinion, agree with the misogynist, appear to be contradicted, refrain from future opinions or just be silent.

But as we all know silence is often equated with consent.

Non-consent needs to be loud and clear.

And frequent.